Comment

Giles Fraser is wrong. Ugly churches are not just aesthetic disasters, but theological ones as well

Giles Fraser said that we must learn to worship in tents not temples (PA)

You might like to read what the Rev Giles Fraser has to say in the Guardian about the Church of England’s ownership of so many redundant or semi-redundant churches, particularly in rural areas.

The comparison with Beeching is perhaps not a helpful one – Beeching was a vandal, but the point that we have idolised heritage to the point of weeping more over the destruction of Palmyra than the sufferings of refugees, is a good one.

Nevertheless, I think Canon Fraser is wrong.

Of course it is true that the Church is a group of people, rather than a building, and that Moses worshipped in a tent, but to talk of churches as theologically little more than rain shelters is misleading.

For a start, God Himself believes in buildings for worship: the books of Moses and the later books of the Old Testament make it clear that the Temple is of paramount importance, as the place where God makes His home, “the hill of Sion that He loves”. For God is not some sort of spirit “out there”, He is emphatically down here, with His people and in their midst.

As with the Temple, so with the Church, and churches. Every parish church – every Catholic one at least – is the place where God dwells with us, where He has pitched tent, the place of His tabernacle. These are not just buildings, they are sacred spaces, they are holy, and they have been consecrated as such, their very walls being anointed at their consecration. You can see the crosses on the interior of a church which mark the spot where the building was anointed, on the occasion when it became, not just a building, but a church.

Incidentally, this is one reason why I simply loathe the idea of putting on any secular activity inside a church. The church is set aside, consecrated, for liturgy, the worship of God; stuff like bingo and meetings can and should take place in the church hall. To use the church as you would a church hall is to abuse the church. This is why, when churches are made redundant and closed, it is best that the deconsecrated building be demolished rather than put to some profane use. (“Profane”, please remember, just means outside the shrine, or fanum.)

But it goes further than this: churches are meant to be not just sacred buildings, but beautiful buildings as well. I was lucky to be brought up in Malta, where, in each village, at its centre, is its most beautiful building, the church. These churches, like beautiful buildings everywhere, radiate the conviction, not just that God is with His people and in their midst, but that God, in His Incarnation, had released in us the possibility of creating beauty out of earthly materials. And this beauty mediates His love, and reinforces the faith of all who see and feel it.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Catholic Church was emphatically on the side of beauty in art. Nowadays, when so much art is in fact ugly, and reflects a nihilistic vision of life – just look at Tracey Emin’s famous bed – the Church seems to have taken its eye off the ball. Quite simple, cheaply built, churches can be pleasant and prayerful places that bring home to us the truth of the Incarnation, but there are some modern buildings, that may have cost a huge amount perhaps, which do no such thing, which is a pity – because these churches are not just aesthetic disasters, but theological ones as well.

In a way Giles Fraser is right. We should not be over attached to buildings, or, I suppose, anything on this earth below. But, and it is an important but, the Word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us: buildings can provide us with an opening to the transcendence of God. The Reformation with its attendant iconoclasm stripped England of much of its numinosity: to close down so many rural churches would bring that process to a sorry completion.